Do you often hear a saying that you’ve heard for years and one day you think “what on earth does that mean”? I think we all do that. I’ve thought of some below – if you have any of your own please leave me a comment below.
Slept like a log – Logs don’t sleep?? ‘sleep like a log’ apparently derives from the immobility of logs.
To hell in a hand basket - What does this mean??? The notion of sinners being literally transported to hell in carts is certainly very old. The mediaeval stained glass windows of Fairford Church in Gloucestershire contain an image of a woman being carried off to purgatory in a wheelbarrow pushed by a blue devil. The phrase isn’t that old though and ‘going to hell in a hand basket’ and its alternative form ‘going to hell in a handcart’, originated in the US, around the start of the 20th century. The ‘handbasket’ version is now the more common there, although neither version is widely used in other English-speaking countries.
Clean as a whistle – I don’t think whistles are clean – for me conjures up icky and dirty, not clean at all – imagine the spit in a whistle (like an umpire’s whistle) – gross! It however originated from clear as a whistle (heard clear and sharply) – clear replaced by clean using the word clean as Sharp and Definite.
To Take the Mickey – who and what is Mickey? And how do you take Mickey from someone? – not sure if this one can be said … but it is Cockney rhyming slang for “take the Piss”(1930’s) – “Take the Mickey Bliss” and then shortened to Mike then Mickey (around 1950). Taking the Mickey is more acceptable to say than the former.
Grasping at straws – Drinking straws? When and why would someone be grasping at them for any type of help? It actually comes from the very old proverb noted by Samuel Richardson in his novel Clarissa (1748): “A drowning man will catch at a straw, the proverb well says.” The “straw” in this case refers to the sort of thin reeds that grow by the side of a river, which a drowning man being swept away by a fast current might desperately grasp in a futile attempt to save himself. Thus “grasp at straws” has, since at least the 18th century, meant “to make a desperate and almost certainly futile effort to save oneself”
He’s like a bad penny, he always turns up – how is a Penny bad? – back when Penny’s were valuable currency, there were quite a lot of counterfeiters around and if you ended up with a bad penny it was a really disappointing. When people would get them often they would feel like the bad penny was always showing up. Now it means someone that you don’t want to see, is always popping up.
Bite the Bullet – how often does a person bite a bullet?? It means to accept something difficult or unpleasant. As in, “You’re going to have to bite the bullet and admit you broke the window.” It is believed to have come from the war times when emergency surgery is needed: Legs have to come off or deeply-buried bullets need to come out. And sometimes, there’s no time for anaesthesia when the Nazis are bearing down. So, rather than stabbing a patient in the arm to distract him from the saw going through his foot, the surgeon would supposedly shove a bullet in his mouth and ask him to bite down.
Pleased as Punch – who is Punch? Is it Punch and Judy? Yes it is – everytime he killed someone (which was many every show – his wife, his baby, the police, the hangman) he was very pleased with himself. The earliest citation for “proud as Punch” is in the Dickens novel David Copperfield (1850): “I am as proud as Punch to think that I once had the honor of being connected with your family.”
Go like the Clappers - a clapper is the tongue of a bell …. the phrase “to run like the clappers” comes from when the bell was rung to tell the workers it was time for work in the morning. As it got closer to starting time, the bell was rung faster, if people were running late they picked up speed and ran as fast as the clappers (of the starting bell).
Fit as a Fiddle – Fiddle meaning violin. ‘Fit’ didn’t originally mean healthy and energetic, in the sense it is often used nowadays to describe the inhabitants of gyms. When this phrase was coined ‘fit’ was used to mean ‘suitable, seemly, fitting’, in the way we now might say ‘fit for purpose’. Fit as a fiddle meant the violin was fit for the purpose of making music.
Lost your Marbles – The word ‘marbles’ has had many meanings throughout history. Marbles are generally known as the little glass balls that children use to play a game. From the mid 19th century, the word ‘marbles’ was also used to mean ‘personal effects’, ‘goods’, or more generally ‘stuff’. This was derived from the French word ‘meubles’, which means ‘furniture’. Therefore, to lose one’s marbles means “to lose your stuff,” or, idomatically, to lose one’s mind. How many other sayings do you know for losing your mind? “A few sandwiches short of a picnic” … let me know your favourite.